Will India infuse fresh life into BIMSTEC?
The invitation to the Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) leaders to the second oath-taking ceremony of victorious Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out a clear message to the neighbourhood and beyond – India’s conception of a friendly neighbourhood had changed. BIMSTEC is important for India, for the region of South and Southeast Asia and India will pull out all the stops to make it an effective and robust organisation. As Indo-Pacific assumes greater salience in Indian foreign policy and Indian stakes in this space grows, it will want to gather and consolidate all the available resources, with BIMSTEC being one such platform. In the larger context of global developments in the Bay of Bengal and Indo-Pacific, a regional organisation that straddles this strategic geography can be very valuable for all member states. In a more immediate context and in the backdrop of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka, the threat perception in the region can be countered through a regional security architecture under the BIMSTEC umbrella, an aspiration that Colombo has voiced about the need for regional countries to come together on an anti-terror platform. Thus, in the words of Modi, there is vast scope in “realising the vast potential” of this region, not just on security, but physical and digital connectivity, cultural contacts and sustainable use of resources.
For India, the raison d’être to build an effective BIMSTEC matrix is manifold. This regional group is firstly, aptly poised to complement Indian overall foreign policy in its engagement with the south-eastern economies and, secondly, it also dovetails in its domestic policy of integrating the Northeast region both with mainland India as well as with its extended neighborhood. Thirdly, as Modi’s ‘Neighbour First’ and ‘Act East’ finds reverberation in the neighbourhood again, India is keen to drive a regional policy in the region which has not experienced an effective regional initiative. Evidently, SAARC is in cold storage and there are several regional issues coming to the forefront which can seek realization through this regional forum. Fourthly, assuming leadership and providing a momentum to BIMSTEC not divided by any sharp political differences, is a realistic expectation premised on its promise of leading India’s growth story.
BIMSTEC boasts of the two of the four fastest growing economies, Bangladesh and India, comprises three other South Asian nations, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and two Southeast Asian immediate neighbours in the region, Myanmar and Thailand, in a unique regional initiative straddling two regions. For an organisation that brings together one of the being the most integrated region with one of least integrated region of South Asia its success seems limited to official meetings and some joint statements. Clearly BIMSTEC is yet to capture the imagination of the people of nearly 1.6 billion people making up of 23% of the total world population it represents. Its visibility both within the member countries and outside has been rather limited. The holding of just four summits in over two decades speaks louder than any other statement would.
At this juncture, with BIMSTEC entering its 22nd year, it is possible to examine the status of this grouping. A grouping formed in 1997 but which remained moribund till recently, India infused fresh life into it when it invited the heads of the member states for an outreach during the BRICS summit in Goa in 2016. Subsequently, India hosted the first annual BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise in Delhi from 10-13 October 2017. About 135 delegates from all member states, handling policy and operational aspects, participated. The main focus of the exercise was to create synergy and synchronise regional cooperation and inter-governmental coordination efforts for disaster management. As of now it has recorded limited progress in counter terrorism, a few of BIMSTEC Transport Logistics and Infrastructure study projects, energy cooperation and public health. While trade and investment, and connectivity – physical and digital – have been recognised as the core areas of BIMSTEC, there is much to be done.
As ‘Reinvigorating BIMSTEC’, a FICCI report, identified the need to create regional value chains that could feed into global value chains, enabling BIMSTEC members to take advantage of their collective capabilities; it also suggested a multimodal connectivity and a speedy conclusion of the BIMSTEC FTA that would be a force multiplier towards an effective organisation. This report also mentioned a survey where education and youth training exchanges found flavour among BIMSTEC members and this could very well be taken forward by India, given its focus on skill development programmes. While it is relatively easy to focus on low-hanging fruits like these and people to people contacts, BIMSTEC has to move beyond safe and non-traditional areas to make this organisation stand up and be counted. Keeping regional security uppermost on their agenda, BIMSTEC members can identify a minimum common security denominator covering criminal laws, police structures, intelligence sharing et al. This could then become a stepping stone to a larger regional security architecture, an ideal worth pursuing in the future.